Phillip Hua: artist expands his canvas

  • by Jim Van Buskirk
  • Tuesday November 22, 2022
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artist Phillip Hua in his studio
artist Phillip Hua in his studio

Visual artist Phillip Hua is a busy man. Currently working on five public art projects, in addition to his impressive body of gallery work, he's been recently renovating his studio. After new floors were installed, he had a storage rack built, getting organized for open studios "right around the corner." The gay artist recently took time out of his robust schedule for an interview, during which he was relaxed and forthcoming about his life and work.

His largest, and most recent, public art piece was unveiled on October 22. "Building a Better Bayview," installed in the main lobby of the Southeast Community Center in the Bayview, honors "The Big 6," Bayview community leaders instrumental in bringing the original community center to the neighborhood.

The historical background: In 1979, San Francisco's southeast communities won a community center located at 1800 Oakdale Avenue as part of an agreement to offset the effects of the Southeast Wastewater Treatment Plant on surrounding communities. The new center honors the legacy of the community activists who led the movement for the original center: Alex Pitcher, Harold Madison, Ethel Garlington, Dr. Espanola Jackson, Shirley Jones, and Elouise Westbrook.

Phillip Hua's 'Building a Better Bayview' installation at the Southeast Community Center  

Originally commissioned in 2018, the mural's timeline was impacted by the pandemic.

"Having multiple projects is good," said Hua. "They stall, they start, so it's good to have multiple irons in the fire."

With their long timelines, these big public projects helped with "where the world was, where I was," Hua added. Galleries were struggling, and virtual shows being not the same as in person. "It wasn't a great place for my energy."

So Hua shifted his focus from his gallery work and became increasingly interested public art. He's now starting two projects with the cities of Sunnyvale & Dublin.

Going public
His very first public art commission was in 2009 for the SF Arts commission's "Art in Storefronts" project. He was offered a $500 stipend for his installation, "Consider It." He was grateful for the experience, the opportunity to try something different. "It always helps to think big, start small and move fast!" Hua enthused.

In 2015 his portraits, "We are San Francisco: Unified Portraits of a Divided San Francisco," was part of Muni Art, an innovative artistic venture between San Francisco Beautiful and the SFMTA that placed local art inside 50 Muni buses.

As his public art portfolio grew, establishing a track record, he was able to get bigger and better commissions, including projects in Davis, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and a permanent public art installation at the 19th Street BART station in Oakland. Hua also created an art label for Imagery Winery's 2019 Tempranillo. He quipped, "The wine is bold, fruity and spicy, just like me!"

Phillip Hua's 'Steps to Wisdom' project (rendering: Andrew Klein)  

After years living in the Castro, Hua and his husband Eric Rottenberg bought a home in the Portola district in 2013, thinking, "it was affordable, but not all that exciting, not much going on." He would head to SoMa or back to the Castro to eat, party and hang out with friends.

In 2014 he met all kinds of neighbors through the Portola Neighborhood Association, and discussions began with the Goettingen Neighbors Group about the utilitarian, but taken-for-granted steep concrete staircase that connects Goettingen Street to Dwight Street.

Hua's initial concept was a waterfall design with glow-in-the-dark treads and mirrored tiled risers. After sourcing and testing materials, he found issues with the initial design, including not having enough sunlight to charge the glow-in-the-dark elements. That, and the urban light pollution, forced him to rethink the design.

Stairway to haven
With San Francisco's many storied tiled stairways, "I wanted to create something unique," he said. His idea: "Steps to Wisdom," using the ascent of stairs as a metaphor for enlightenment. He was able to carry forward the original mirror element and combine it with "words of wisdom" from the community. The words of wisdom will be embedded into the tiles for visitors to read as they go up the stairs. Upon reaching the top of the stairs, the visitors will be met with a set of fully mirrored stairs, a manifestation of reflection.

"Wisdom comes from reflecting," said Hua. "Reflecting on your life and what you've learned; regrets, mistakes, successes. And when others think about your lessons, they have a chance to learn from you, too. Now others are seeing themselves in you and that's another form of reflection."

Phillip Hua's 'Compounded Call'  

This former "pipe dream" is nearing the end of its fundraising campaign. Hua said working with the community on the project was wonderful because the more involved folks are, the more meaning it has. Seeking to represent a variety life experiences, they have collected advice and life lessons from throughout the community, including the involvement of a local senior center, and look forward to sharing it with everyone.

Committed to community, Hua is an amiable ambassador of the arts, especially enthusiastically extolling the benefits of public art. Acknowledging the importance of art in private homes, museums, and galleries, he likes to include the public in his work.

"It builds community ownership," and brings people closer to the art, in a sense, bringing art to the people.

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